TWO classy strikes from Lee Evans reignited Sheffield United’s push for the play-offs on a nervy night at Bramall Lane.
The January signing answered Chris Wilder’s call for his side to be more clinical in front of goal with controlled volleys either side of the dismissal of Middlesbrough midfielder Grant Leadbitter.
That incident should have led to a comfortable evening for the Blades but it was anything but as a tactical switch by Tony Pulis enabled 10-man Boro to boss the second half.
It was they who, even in defeat, looked the stronger proposition to extend their season into the play-offs, even if Millwall’s victory over Bolton saw them claim the coveted sixth spot and knocked Boro into seventh.
Boro’s fitness levels and experience left United chasing and launching desperate balls up front from the moment Daniel Ayala gave them a lifeline two minutes into the second half.
United held on and took the points, and with it a modicum of revenge on the Teesiders who inflicted a first, and controversial, defeat on the Blades way back on the second Saturday of the season up at the Riverside.
If Wilder was looking for a response from his players after the defeat at Barnsley three days earlier he certainly got one in a rousing first half.Nick Westby
Back then, United were feeling their way into the division.
Eight months on they have been emboldened by a sustained challenge on the top six and have dared to dream about successive promotions up to the Premier League.
As desperate as it became in the second half last night, that United held on spoke volumes about their desire and determination.
If Wilder was looking for a response from his players after the defeat at Barnsley three days earlier he certainly got one in a rousing first half.
Only two minutes had elapsed when Evans scored the first of his two sumptuous goals.
There appeared to be little danger when the ball was cleared to him on the edge of the area but he shaped his body and met it first time with a controlled half-volley off his in-step which arced past Darren Randolph.
It should have been 2-0 13 minutes later when Leon Clarke was played clear but the top scorer shot tamely at Randolph.
It was a miss that initially threatened to return to haunt United as Boro sparked into life off the back of the direct running of Adama Traore.
Patrick Bamford should have done better than shoot meekly at Simon Moore before the complexion of the game changed with the dismissal of Leadbitter on 24 minutes.
It was reckless from the experienced midfielder, a booking for a cynical pull back on the breaking David Brooks followed five minutes later by raised studs in the direction of John Fleck’s shin.
The rush of blood presented United with a chance to capitalise and that they did on 40 minutes with another beauty from Evans.
Brooks cut inside from a short corner and dinked the ball to the edge of the penalty area, but there was still work for the unmarked Evans to do as he set himself up perfectly again to volley the ball into the bottom corner.
From such a position of strength it should have been plain sailing but as Unitedites will attest, the Blades do not do things easy.
Within minutes of the restart Boro had hope, Ayala poking the ball across Moore after racing on, unopposed, to meet Ben Gibson’s flick from Stewart Downing’s free-kick.
United suddenly looked shaky and an emboldened Boro played on that.
Pulis had reacted to a one-sided first half by removing Traore, Bamford and Mo Besic and throwing on Britt Assombalonga, Fabio and Adam Clayton.
It was the latter who played on fragile home nerves, racing straight at the heart of Wilder’s retreating defence and fizzing a shot just over Moore’s crossbar.
The substitutions came with a tactical shift, Pulis deploying a five-man midfield that stretched United and allowed Boro to move the ball across the pitch.
It created the illusion that it was Boro who enjoyed the man advantage, the reality only becoming apparent when United broke forward, a rarity in a nervy second half as too often possession was surrendered cheaply or the wrong pass was chosen.
Downing had home hearts in mouths 12 minutes from time when cutting inside from the right and curling a left foot shot that went narrowly wide of Moore’s post.
It was as close as the visitors got, Ayala sinking to his knees at full-time as Bramall Lane breathed a sigh of relief.
Sheffield United: Moore, Basham, Wright (Duffy 73), O’Connell, Baldock, Lundstram (Leonard 90), Lee Evans, Fleck, Stevens, Brooks (Donaldson 86), Clarke. Unused substitutes: Sharp, Lafferty, Holmes, Eastwood.
Middlesbrough: Randolph, Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Howson, Leadbitter, Besic (Clayton 46), Traore (Da Silva 46), Bamford (Assombalonga 46), Downing. Unused substitutes: Konstantopoulos,Cranie,Fry,Harrison.
Referee: Darren Bond (Lancashire).